it was not enough to demonstrate a close family connection only, but that must be ‘some sort of moral claim…beyond a blood relationship, some reason why it can be said in the circumstances, it is unreasonable why no or no greater provision was in fact made [Re Coventry].
The Supreme Court has ruled, unanimously, that the original judgement made in this case should stand: that Mrs Ilott’s long estrangement from her mother and her financial independence mean that an award should be made, and that £50,000 (from an estate worth approximately £450,000) had been an appropriate sum to provide funds for Mrs Ilott’s maintenance. Some of this money could be used for the provision of new household items that were in poor repair and the capital awarded might not therefore affect the family’s benefits entitlement.
Judgment was this week handed down in the Supreme Court on the Ilott v Mitson case; heard in December 2016, some 12 years after the date of Mrs Jackson, the testator at the centre of the story. Ilott v Blue Cross
Essentially, the Supreme Court overturned the order made in the Court of Appeal, stating that the original judgement had been correctly decided; on the basis of the information given to DJ Million, he had not erred in either a legal judgement or a factual one. It was therefore not correct for the Court of Appeal to amend the award at all and the award made by them was not on the basis it should have been. Of the seven Lord Justices hearing this final appeal by the charities against the decision, all seven were in agreement with the judgment that the Court of Appeal had calculated the award made to Mrs Ilott incorrectly.
In the 48 paragraph judgment, Lord Hale quoted the criteria for the 1975 Act for the provision for family and dependants, setting out the differences in the discretion of the Court on cases of a partner or spouse and the ‘maintenance’ order that was the only compensation that could be made for a child.
The judgment also focuses on the potential misunderstanding in connection with the phrase ‘reasonable financial provision’;
“Reasonable financial provision is….what is reasonable for [the Claimant] to receive. These are words of objective standard of financial provisions, to be determined by the court. The Act does not say that the court may make an order when it judges that the deceased acted unreasonably”
This echoes an earlier judgment in Re Coventry  which also stated that on this basis it was not enough to demonstrate a close family connection only, but that must be ‘some sort of moral claim…beyond a blood relationship, some reason why it can be said in the circumstances, it is unreasonable why no or no greater provision was in fact made’
“Circumstances of the relationship between the deceased and the claimant may affect what is the just order to make…the provision which it is reasonable to make will, because of the distance of the relationship, or perhaps of the conduct of one or other of the parties, be to meet only part of the needs of the claimant.” (para 22)
The principle was repeated in para 35 of the judgment, reiterating that the original judgment made no error when considering the nature of the relationship between mother and daughter: emphasising how some adult children may have contributed to the wealth of their parents, or to their health or wellbeing contrasted with the case in hand, when mother and daughter had been estranged for several decades.
“A judge ought in such circumstances to attach importance to the closeness of the relationship in aiming at his assessment of what reasonable financial provision requires. The judge considered each of the factors… The long estrangement was the reason the testator made the will she did. It meant that Mrs Ilott was not only a non-dependant adult child but made her life entirely separately from her mother and lacked any expectation of benefit from her estate…the judge was perfectly entitled to reach the conclusion which he did, namely that there was a failure of reasonable financial provisions, but that what reasonable financial provision would be was coloured by the relationship between mother and daughter”.
The point was emphasised further in paragraphs 46 and 47: the nature of the relationship between mother and daughter being fundamental clearly making this as a deciding factor
Lady Hale made a further contribution to the judgement, not to dissent but to clarify the perspective offered to the judges by current public consultations including the most recent Law Commission Report in 2011, which might have been offered more satisfactory guidance on the factors taken into account. Given the changing social climate since the 1975 Act was passed it might have been helpful for their Lordships to have more guidance on deciding whether an adult child was deserving or undeserving of reasonable maintenance, in the absence of dependency or disability.
What does this mean for people making wills?
The Supreme Court considers testamentary freedom to be paramount: that the law as it stands (however ill-suited some might feel it is to today’s social structures, it has not been amended by the most recent Law Commission consultation) was correctly applied in the initial case: the fact that Mrs Ilott was a family member and the charities benefitted from the estate was not a reason to depart from the original judgement. The estrangement had been originally referred to in a side letter to a will made by Mrs Jackson in 1984 as well as the later will of 2002, and this side letter also made it clear that Mrs Jackson had considered the moral obligation she had and stated that she felt no moral or financial obligation towards her daughter, given their strained relationship.
What do clients need to do to ensure their wills are followed?
It is clear that no one is above the court’s authority to adjust the estate for beneficiaries who should have received some benefit. However, for those who have adult children who are financially independent and to whom no promises have been given or assurance of expectation made, the testator is free to choose what they want to do: if the testator has been receiving monies from a child, then the testator may ‘owe’ a moral duty to that child, to be represented by a financial gift. In case there is doubt as to whether the testator has considered the claims to which they should give effect, it is wise to record that they have been considered. The closeness of relationship between the child and the testator be a factor relevant in any claim against the estate and a testator may wish to record details of the relationship and the reasons for their dismissal of familial bonds and why they have left their estate to others, so that executors have material to show the testator’s perception of the relationship to set against those of a claimant.
What does this mean for adult children excluded from benefit under a will?
If there is little to show the closeness of relationship between child and parent, no promises of future entitlements or great expectations, no financial dependency and the child is not disabled, or in need, their prospects of a successful claim against a parent’s estate will be diminished by this ruling, particularly if they are financially self-supporting.